Forest for the Trees

Searching for an image made my little heart long for the West Coast. Photo CC by Loren Kerns

If you’ve read about me, you know that I am not going to be a teacher. At least, I’m not going to be a teacher in the traditional, classroom sense; a teaching professional I may never be, but we are, all of us, educators in some way.

Alas, that philosophy hasn’t stopped folks from trying to coax me into being a teacher or a professor.

I love TED Talks. I could lose hours in them (and sometimes I have, but there is debate as to whether or not this is truly a loss). TED Talks are immensely popular, especially in the educational sphere. A former high school math teacher of my was immensely fond of TED Talks, and for me it took some of the dread out of going to math class. Not to mention they sustained that spark of intellectual curiosity that was threatened to be squashed out by religious dogma.

It’s not hard to see why these five to twenty minute videos are so beloved, by educators and learners alike; you can open just about any Talk and learn something new, create discussion, and – if you’re like me – want to cry from sheer wonder.

Yeah, I cry about trees. It’s the curse of being twice-named after a plant.

I started watching Simard’s Talk with a slight but important reservation: could I connect this to digital literacy, and to learning? As the video began, I had the list of Talks open in another tab, and I skimmed for the next one I would try, should this one prove inadequate for my purposes.

Since you’ve just watched it for yourself, you’ll know that I was, thankfully, wrong. And, to my delight, it matched up with Cucinotta’s article.

When Cucinotta asked her former teacher – Suzanne Fogarty – why she’d utilized TED Talks during her classes, Fogarty answered:

“TED Talks make us pause and listen to the percolation of ideas—art, engineering, technology, the humanities, spoken word and more.”

Ah, percolation. A word — I believe — I heard before in a certain Capstone class.

Allow me to get etymological for a moment, because “percolation” is a really cool word.

Percolation comes from the Latin word percolare, which means “to strain through.”

The slow passage of a liquid through a filtering medium; the filtration of a liquid for extraction or purification.

To percolate a topic, then, means to consider it. To mull it over. To slowly sift it through the gray matter of our brains. Cucinotta uses another favorite word of mine: perspective. It’s not the suggestion to watch a TED Talk that exactly lines up with a topic in which one is interested. Rather, it’s more helpful to feed the critical thinking, creativity, and curiosity, to come at a topic from a different perspective. It’s useful to aid people who haven’t fully grasped the concept(s), and it’s also useful for the ones who have, because it encourages digging deeper.

TED Talks are designed to be interesting. Most speakers are well-practiced and therefore engaging, and most, if not all, topics are fascinating. We are not experts in the subjects often being shared on stage — but these speakers often are. And that’s the wonder of the Internet, isn’t it? That we have the ability to “invite” experts into our classrooms, our workplaces, our homes. We can send an expert hurtling through cyberspace at a friend or family member. For free!*

Bottom line: TED Talks are amazing resources for everyone, regardless of profession.

So let’s talk about trees.

The key point of the Simard’s TED Talk, first of all: save the trees. And save the planet! Proxima b might be right next door, but “right next door” is a long ways away. The second point, however, is just as important:

Forests aren’t just a bunch of trees competing with each other; they’re super-cooperators!

I’ve read before about Pando, the colony of Aspens that make up a single organism, but I was unaware about the other species that coexist in a somewhat similar fashion. And this idea — especially in American, individualistic society — of not be competitors and instead being cooperators, people who not only coexist but who help each other, who work together for a common good, is moving to me.

Meet Pando. This image brought to you by the Government (and the Public Domain).

Apart from being a super educational Talk, the last five minutes or so of Simard’s talk hit some really good, universal points that I think not only apply to forests, but also to the larger organism of human societies. I propose that we take a new perspective and begin to think of our hubs of learning (classrooms, libraries, our own homes) as forests. With that lens, Simard’s talk gains a whole other level.

First, we all need to get out in the forest. We need to reestablish local involvement in our own forests.You see, most of our forests now are managed using a one-size-fits-all approach, but good forest stewardship requires knowledge of local conditions.

Sound familiar? We’ve been discussing that one-size-fits-all approach to learning these past few weeks, and how it inevitably fails learners of all varieties (because it’s based on the presupposition that there is no variety).

… We need to regenerate our forests with a diversity of species and genotypes and structures by planting and allowing natural regeneration.

This point contains another favorite word of mine: diversity. Simard mentions that homogeneous forests are more likely to succumb to disease and death. It’s important to note that this homogeneity is artificial. Diversity is the natural state of life. It makes for a healthy forest, and also a healthy society — Chimamanda Adichie speaks about this in her famous TED Talk “The Danger of a Single Story.”

The point I want to close this post with this thought:

We need to be conservationists.

What does that mean, in the context of our lives — both professional and personal — as members of society, a diverse and complex and cooperative organism?

I could tell you that, for me as a future librarian it means preserving and passing along stories and information and tools to others, and I’m sure that those of you who are working to become teachers could tell me something similar.

Mostly, it means that our survival, our health, the goodness of our world is dependent on each other. On what we can teach each other, on what we can learn from each other.

We are, all of us, it seems, trees.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

-Henry David Thoreau

*WiFi, as one learns when one becomes an adult who must pay bills, is not free. At all.

6 thoughts on “Forest for the Trees

  1. Great article and great TED talk! I have also lost track of time going through the different TED talks. All of the speakers are so engaging and I am never disappointed after watching one. I love learning new things (that I never really knew I even wanted to learn) from TED talks. They have such a variety of topics that I could spend days on end watching them!


    1. Would that I had all the hours in the day to just watch TED Talks! Part of digital literacy, if I remember correctly, is a commitment to a lifetime of learning — and what better way to do that than with TED Talks. I think after I graduate and have no more classes (a bittersweet prospect), I’m going to endeavor to watch at least one new TED Talk a week in order to continue feeding my curiosity.


    1. Thanks! I think it’s important to remind ourselves that we’re just as much a part of nature as a tree or a beetle. We’re not only interconnected with each other, we’re also very much connected with our planet. It’s no surprise or coincidence that nature and all its happenings makes such a good metaphor for our own societies.


  2. That was an incredible Tedtalk. It taught me a lot of new and exciting information. I’m pretty sure my husband heard me say “woooooowww” about a dozen times. So thank you for sharing. I fully agree with you that we depend on each other. You have a of enticing points in yet, another great blog. One more thing I must say is that my vocabulary is definitely expanding when reading your blogs!! Lots of new learning for me! Thanks Holly! Looking forward to more!


    1. Thanks! I love expanding my vocabulary also! I need to actively start sharpening it; I’ve been slacking these past few years. I subscribed to Dictionary.com’s Word of the Day email, and it’s helped a little bit, but I think I might have to seek out a more active vocabulary tool.


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